An alpha reader is a person who reads a book or text before it goes into beta and helps the author improve it. This kind of feedback and critique is invaluable when it comes to making a book the best possible version of itself. Here are some tips on what makes an alpha reader and how you can become one.
What’s an Alpha Reader?
As the name implies, an alpha reader is a very first reader of a book or manuscript.
Sometimes alpha readers come on board a book even before the first draft is finished. The reason for this is that an alpha reader’s main task is to identify fundamental weaknesses in the book’s structure and give a sense of whether the story is working and how it feels.
This requires a certain degree of sensitivity to the particular genre in which an author is writing, as well as the ability to read and evaluate what’re often quite rough texts.
This is why an alpha reader is not really an average reader – it requires a more robust approach than a casual reader usually brings to bear. Often the perfect fit might be a fellow writer.
An Author’s Best Friend
Alpha readers are an author’s best friends if they know how to give constructive feedback on the things that really matter in a book in a way that helps the author without trying to take over the book.
For an alpha reader, it’s very important to convey the feeling they had at various points in a manuscript. You can think of it as a kind of ‘feeling critique’ of a work.
From the author’s point of view, good alpha feedback allows him/her to develop one or more characters in his/her book, solve space problems, clarify the setting, and address the overall plot. It will also help their overall writing process.
The Difference Between an Alpha and a Beta Reader
The main difference between an alpha reader and a beta reader, or even a gamma reader, is the stage at which they engage.
The alpha reader isn’t necessarily the person the author would go to a second or third time. That would be the beta reader’s job and perhaps the editor’s job.
Alpha readers not only read an author’s first drafts, but the role differs in that an alpha reader pays more attention to the overall story than a beta reader, who usually goes into the details of a finished novel or book.
It’s along the lines of a developmental edit, with the difference being that an alpha read-through and feedback is more to do with the feeling of the read-through, whereas a developmental edit will usually address flaws, plot holes, and so forth in a more professional manner.
An alpha reader should not normally get caught up with grammatical errors, typos, spelling, and so on. These are things that should be addressed at the Beta, editing process, and proofreading stage.
All of this happens long before a professional editor or proofreader comes into play.
Because alpha readers are usually concerned at a strategic level with story structure, overall tone, and character development, they’re often (though not always) fellow writers, often from the same genre in which the author writes.
Beta readers, on the other hand, are usually avid readers of a particular genre who’re familiar with all the tropes and current literature in the genre and provide feedback at the reader level rather than the craft level.
The Main Tasks
The main job of a good alpha reader is to provide direct, honest, and immediate feedback on a book, in a timely manner.
Timeliness is incredibly important because often authors either have an external deadline or they’ve set a deadline for themselves that they want to meet. If they have to wait for late alpha feedback, it can seriously affect the overall progress of a book.
It’s a fine line to walk when you’re offering your knowledge and experience to someone and not trying to take over a book.
Alpha readers are there to support authors, not to slow them down.
A good alpha reader can make an author’s job much easier and make him or her a more effective writer in the long run.
Keeping the Big Picture in Mind
There are no hard and fast rules for what is and isn’t an alpha reader, but the main difference is that an alpha reader usually has the big picture in mind, such as story structure, plot, and character development.
Alpha readers also need to know how to write at least one to two paragraphs of substantive feedback on each chapter they read.
Feedback must always be honest and direct and, in most cases, positive.
A good alpha reader won’t only be able to identify the things that need improvement, but will also be able to write the feedback in a way that encourages the author to improve it.
The most important thing an alpha reader needs to know is how to give really good feedback and how to word it in a way that the author can use.
10 Tips on How to Become and Be an Alpha Reader
1. Honest and Well-Judged Feedback
To be a really good alpha reader, you’ve to know how to give honest feedback while paying attention to how the author takes the feedback.
There’s no point in giving feedback that upsets the author or puts him or her on the defensive.
On the other hand, as an author, I’d rather know that there’s a problem with my story, characters, or setting than not know.
2. Be Prompt With Your Feedback
Depending on the deadlines an alpha reader has, this can be tricky.
On the one hand, you want to give good, timely feedback, but on the other hand, you don’t want to rush through an entire manuscript just so you can turn it in on time.
3. Give as Much Detail as Possible
The more specific you are in describing the things you like or don’t like, the more useful your feedback will be to the writer. There’s a difference between saying, “I like that,” and saying, “I like that you include the main character’s motivation in the plot and not just as a side note.”
You’ll be surprised how much pleasure a line like that gives the writer.
4. Be or Become a Writer Yourself
The nature of alpha reading definitely favors people who are writers themselves, ideally in the same genre on which they provide constructive criticism.
Having a sense of genre definitely helps the alpha reader see where things are going well and where things need improvement.
An understanding of how the genre works is also a big help when it comes to pointing out where the author is going wrong. One of the most serious mistakes an author can make is to invent a detail that doesn’t fit the world he or she’s created.
The best alpha readers are authors who excel at the craft of writing and who can use their knowledge to help others.
5. Cut Out the Fluff
Your feedback should be short, sweet, and to the point.
That doesn’t mean your feedback should be brutal or insulting. But it does mean that you get straight to the point. A good sentence or two in the summary is a good start. Then you address your criticism.
This means that your feedback should be direct and honest, and should always include specific examples of the things you’re addressing.
The point is to make it clear to the author what you liked and didn’t like and how you’d like to change those things. Such notes are incredibly useful for an author and a great help for the next draft.
An author can take feedback like “I didn’t like that the main character was so passive in that part of the book” much better than feedback like “I’m not sure about this book, I didn’t really like it.”
Be honest, but be kind. A few changes here and there can make a big difference in how an author takes the feedback he or she receives.
6. Praise Any Good Work You See
Even though Alpha Reading is a critique, it’s important to offer praise when it’s appropriate.
If a writer has done something really well, he or she needs to know that he or she’s done it well.
If you feel that an author has done something really well, be sure to tell them. It’ll help them see that they’re on the right track. It’ll also give them the motivation to do the same in other areas of the book.
7. Remember That the Author Is the Expert
No matter how good you think you’re at knowing something about a particular genre or subgenre, or even plot and character development, you’re only as good as the author you’re helping.
Don’t try to take over a book or steer it in a direction you think it should go.
8. Recognize the Author’s Strengths and Weaknesses
Help him/her strengthen his/her weak areas and build on his/her strengths. Know when to be constructive
Knowing when to be constructive and when to be critical is a fundamental aspect of being a good alpha.
If you know that a particular plotline just isn’t going to work, then you need to give feedback as early as possible. But if you see potential in a character or a possible problem with the setting, you need to give that feedback as well.
A good alpha reader knows when to be direct and when to be sensitive.
9. Keep Your Ego Out of It
As an alpha reader, your own strengths and abilities as a writer and even your strengths and abilities as a critic are irrelevant.
What matters is the author you’re helping. It’s about his book, his characters, his world, and his story.
Be constructive in both your praise and criticism and try to focus on making their book the best it can be.
It’s the greatest feeling in the world to read a book you’ve worked on from the beginning and see how it’s grown and developed. It’s a real joy to be part of that process, and it’s a great way to make friends for life.
10. Criticize the Text and Not the Author
Always remember that your job is to help the author write the best story possible. Therefore, don’t engage in feedback that focuses on the strengths or weaknesses of the author him/herself. Focus on the story itself and only on the story.
“I don’t like it when the author uses or doesn’t use metaphors” isn’t an acceptable comment.
Instead, you should say, “I like the way you used the metaphor of the gray, silent street” or “I didn’t like the way you wrote the metaphor of the gray, silent street.”
“I didn’t like how this author tended to use metaphors” isn’t an acceptable comment.
Instead, you should say, “I’d have liked the book better if you’d used metaphors” or “I didn’t like that you didn’t use metaphors.”
What an author does or doesn’t do with the feedback you give him or her is entirely up to him or her.
You aren’t there to take over the book or make it your own.
Advantages of Being an Alpha Reader
One of the greatest benefits of being an alpha reader is the camaraderie you enjoy when helping and collaborating with other authors.
As an alpha reader, you can build long-term relationships with other writers. You’ll share a common bond and have a common language.
The right or wrong way to do things will become very clear to you. You’ll also be able to inspire and motivate each other and push each other, both as writers and as alpha readers.
You’ll see your characters and storytelling techniques evolve, and you’ll be able to share in each other’s successes as well as disappointments.
You’ll be able to share resources, ideas, and a lot of empathy. Being an alpha reader is as much about writing as it’s about critiquing and editing. It’s a great way to improve your own writing and self-knowledge.
Alpha reading is a wonderful opportunity to see a story develop from nothing into one that’s ready to go out into the real world. You can see the bones of the story grow and become the body of the book, and the body grows and morph into the finished product.
Being an alpha reader also means making a trusted and valued contribution to the cause of good writing.
Disadvantages of Being an Alpha Reader
The most serious disadvantage of being an alpha reader is the time commitment involved.
It’s very difficult to give constructive feedback and make sure it’s meaningful without spending a lot of time on the book itself. It’s easy to fall into the trap of just reading through and then sending back a few lines of feedback.
It’s important to give a book your full attention. Being an alpha reader is a big commitment, but a very rewarding commitment.
Another potential downside to being an alpha reader is that it’s very easy to take on too much. It’s very easy to take on more books than you could ever read through or than you could ever give a good review. It’s important to remember that your job as an alpha reader is to help your colleagues, not to be their weapon of mass destruction.
The Difference Between an Alpha Reader and a Critique Partner
The main difference between an alpha reader and a critique partner is that as an alpha reader you usually see the work at a very early stage, while as a critique partner you may not see the book until after one or even two revisions.
As the name implies, a critique partner is often someone with whom you trade your manuscripts for feedback, each giving the other a piece of work to critique. An alpha reader, on the other hand, can be a one-way street; there’s not necessarily an obligation to send a manuscript or paper the other way.
An alpha reader has the opportunity to see an author’s work in a very raw form and therefore may be able to offer more critique and advice on issues such as plot, pacing, and character development.
Critique partners, on the other hand, work in the same genre or field, and so may be able to say more about the finer points of grammar or style. Critique partners are often friends, but alpha readers can also be complete strangers.
Are Alpha Readers Paid?
On sites like Fiverr, upwork.com, Reddit, and so on, you’ll find alpha and beta readers who pay for their services.
Keep in mind that much of the writing industry, and especially those of us who self-publish, try to keep costs as low as possible. Chances are they’re already paying for cover design, editing, and marketing. So they’re going to be looking for a very fair price and not want to spend hundreds of dollars on a freelance service.
That’s why many authors have their texts proofread by colleagues in writing groups, in the real world or online, by family or friends.
However, don’t be discouraged if you want to make alpha and perhaps beta reading your income. Some authors prefer to pay at least some of their alpha and beta readers because they feel the quality of feedback is better, more independent, and they can be held accountable. They also don’t want to be tied to sharing manuscripts, which requires a lot of time to read and critique.
Where to Find Alpha Reader Opportunities
I’d advise you to look around websites like Fiverr and Upwork and check out the people offering their services and their rates. Also, check out your local writing group – sites like Meetup are good to find one.
Often these people are freelance writers themselves looking for a side income and therefore work very cheaply.
You could also consider combining alpha and beta reading with learning, and then offering professional editing and proofreading services for writers. You could even go in the direction of developmental editing, possibly partnering with established publishers and writing agencies.
Use keywords like ‘potential readers’ and ‘critique group’ to find writers and services who you can contact and join.